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Bombay Sapphire embodies the idea of a modern gin, indeed it was only launched in 1987. However, both Sapphire and Bombay Dry Gin, its mother brand, can trace their origins and recipes back to the 1760s. Originally made at what is now the Quintessential owned distillery at Loushers Lane, Warrington, since 2014 Bombay gins have been made at the Bombay Sapphire Distillery at Laverstoke Mill.
Unlike many gins where the botanicals used are a closely guarded secret, those used in Bombay Gins are well-known, to the extent that the ten botanicals which give Bombay Sapphire its unique flavour are etched onto the sides of its bottle.
Ivano Tonutti (left of shot) overseeing orris harvest
One of the benefits that came with Bacardi-Martini’s takeover of Bombay is the company’s botanical expertise which comes from the Martini side of the business. Ivano Tonutti is a fifth generation professional descendant of Luigi Rossi, schooled through his apprenticeship at the Martini-Rossi company under Giovanni Brezza. Ivano is responsible for the botanicals used in all of Bacardi’s products, including Martini, Noilly Prat and Bombay Gins. His role is to nurture close relationships built over many years with trusted suppliers and growers and to ensure the quality and consistency of the botanicals used. The botanicals he buys are not the result of vast industrial processes, but are hand reared by artisanal growers.
Every year he selects the best quality botanicals from each supplier, assessing their colour, aroma, freshness and oil content. Excess botanicals are purchased to ensure that if a bad harvest is rejected from one supplier there is still enough of each botanical of a suitable quality held. The botanicals are received at the storage house in England where different batches from each supplier are combined and then combined again with part of the batch from the previous year. This ensures year-on-year consistency. Before a batch of botanicals is sent to the distillery a further ten stringent tests must be passed to ensure the botanicals’ suitability.
The main flavouring in all gins, juniper, is a member of the cypress family and its berries contribute a dry, fragrant, herbal aroma with notes of pine and lavender. Ivano believes that the best quality berries come from the hills in Tuscany, Italy. He believes the wild berries grown under the Tuscan sun ripen more fully than the berries available from other producing countries such as Serbia, Macedonia or India. There are two suppliers with whom he has been working with for many years, one of whom harvests exclusively for Bombay.
These bluish berries are harvested by hand between September and November each year, after the summer sun has naturally dried the berry whilst still on the shrub. The farmers harvest the dried berries by hitting the branches of the shrub with a large stick. Sheets are held underneath to catch the berries as they fall from the tree. They are then cleaned to remove any shrub needles, un-ripened berries and any other impurities and then further dried in large sheds to reduce their humidity to an ideal 15%, so ensuring their longevity.
Every year Ivano selects juniper berries from up to 25 different batches from the two suppliers. In some cases he can tell the quality of the botanical based on the colour alone. The berries should be a dark plum colour, whereas lighter or green colours indicate a bad harvest. The main flavour comes from the essential oils (Alpine Pinere & camphor) within the three seeds inside each berry and this oil content is analysed before selecting the batches that will be shipped to England for distillation.
Lemon peel brings a strong citrus character to Bombay gins and also lifts the other botanicals. The lemons come from the Murcia region of Spain, a basin between the mountains and the sea that is renowned for its citrus fruit. The Mediterranean sun and the microclimate in Murcia's valleys allows the citrus fruits to ripen in winter as the temperature never goes below -4˚C due to the convections of hot air that are constantly present, so producing sweeter, juicier lemons.
Growing citrus fruits is a tradition in Murcia, and nearly every family grows lemons, oranges and other fruit. They are cultivated as naturally as possible with minimal use of fertilisers and pesticides. The lemon trees bloom with small pink-white flowers, each flower producing one fruit, so it is essential to prune the flowers to avoid excessive quantities of lemons causing branches to droop or even break with the heavy fruit.
The trees bear fruit when they are aged between three and 30 years old, and are planted close together to maximise production in the small family-owned groves and gardens, so ruling out the possibility of machine harvesting. Generations of each family hand-pick the lemons to ensure that the trees and fruit are not damaged.
The lemons naturally vary greatly in size and colour, ranging from golf ball- to almost football-sized and these are sorted with the ‘standard’ size we are all familiar with separated for sale to supermarkets. The over- and under-sized, but still sweet and juicy, lemons are perfect for gin production.
Two types of lemons are used for Bombay gins: Fino (representing 30% cultivation) and Verna (70%). Fino lemons are harvested during the winter months, albeit in smaller quantities, with their harvest between January and April. Verna lemons are from the summer harvest between July and September.
The main difference between the two types is the thickness of their skin. Fino lemons have a much thicker skin with more oils, but even the Verna has a thick skin compared to other varieties of lemon. This is key to gin production as the zest of the lemons holds essential oils which add a vibrant citrus flavour and a delicate, bitter sweetness. The left-over fruit pulp and flesh is not required for distillation and is juiced for commercial use or sold as additive to animal feed.
The lemons are laboriously hand-peeled in one continuous long winding piece of peel, according to the traditional cut used for generations in Murcia. This labour intensive process avoids the flesh of the lemon and ensures that the whole skin is used. Thinner skinned lemons increase the risk of some of the fruit flesh being left on the skins after peeling, which in turn can rot and ferment causing damage to an entire harvest of dried peels if left unchecked.
Ivano’s supplier drives from home to home collecting the dried peels from each family. There are over 4,000 families harvesting and peeling small quantities of lemons in Murcia and also co-operative lemon groves where each family has owned several trees for generations.
Once selected, the lemon peels are broken by hand into smaller pieces, placed in large hessian sacks and shipped to England. Before being sent on to the distillery, the quality of each batch of peels is checked again.
Ivano considers these expensive lemons to be the best choice for Bombay gins. Even when the price of Spanish lemons almost doubled in 2008 he continued to source these varieties.
Along with juniper and lemon peel, coriander seeds add bright, fresh high notes to Bombay Gins. The essential oil in coriander seeds is linalool and this is mellow, spicy, fragrant and aromatic with candied ginger, lemon and pungent sage notes. Most of the world’s coriander is produced in Eastern Europe and Russia, however the larger Moroccan seeds contain more oils so are chosen by Ivano for their superior aroma and flavour.
The seeds are harvested in August and September, always in the morning to avoid more of the ripening fruits from falling. They are dried in a circulation of warm air at 30˚C.
Orris root is the rhizome (bulb) of the iris plant and has a very perfumed character. Like angelica root, it helps fix aromas and flavours within Bombay gins. Mainly sourced from Florence in Italy, orris root contributes light perfumed notes to Bombay akin to Parma Violet sweets and fresh hay.
The orris used in Bombay gins is grown in Tuscany in central Italy where hundreds of terraced flowerbeds house thousands of iris flowers. Three- to four-year-old plants are harvested then stored for two to three years to allow the flavours to develop: the finished botanical is very hard and requires grinding into a powder before use.
Angelica is a key ingredient as it balances the bright, fresh high notes of juniper, lemon peel and coriander seeds while also fixing and marrying the volatile flavours of other botanicals, giving length and substance to Bombay gins.
Ivano sources Angelica Root from Saxony, where the multi-headed flowers grow amongst the woodlands in the region surrounding Dresden. When the plants are two-years-old, a special tool is used to pull the root from the soil in one piece.
Bombay’s recipe calls for Spanish Bitter almonds, which have a high essential oil content and give Bombay gins an almond/marzipan, nutty, soapy and spicy flavour – much more than if comparatively faint sweet almonds were used.
Almonds contain trace amounts of arsenic, which along with nut protein are removed during distillation, so luckily Bombay is not hazardous for people with nut allergies.
Sourced from China’s grassy plains, the dried hard fibrous root of the liquorice plant is ground into a powder. Liquorice adds warmth, sweetness and a faint anise aroma to Bombay gins, although liquorice itself does not stand out as a prominent flavour, instead acting as a harmonising agent for the other flavours and aromas.
Liquorice is unusual in that during vapour infusion its flavour is carried by glyciric acid rather than essential oils, of which it is low in content.
A member of the cinnamon family, cassia is sometimes referred to as Chinese cinnamon. It is the bark of a tall evergreen tree grown in Indonesia and is removed from the trunk by hand. As the bark dries it naturally curls into quills which are ground into a powder.
Cassia adds light warmth, sweetness and a delicate spice to Bombay gins. As with the other mid-palate flavours of almond and liquorice, its contribution is to help balance the overall aroma and taste rather than as a primary flavour.
Along with Grains of Paradise, cubeb berries are one of the two additional botanicals that distinguish Bombay Sapphire from Bombay Dry.
A member of the pepper family, these small, red-brown berries come from cubeb plants grown in the shade of coffee trees in plantations in Java, Indonesia. The strong smelling berries are gathered before they ripen and then dried in the sun.
Not far removed from black pepper but with a more floral aroma, cubeb berries add delicate notes of lavender, geranium and rose. They also provide a dry, slightly hot flavour which results in the lively peppery characteristics Bombay Sapphire is renowned for.
Alongside cubeb berries, Grains of Paradise from the moist coastal areas of West Africa also contribute to the peppery finish of Bombay Sapphire, distinguishing the recipe from that of Bombay Dry.
The ‘grains’ are actually seeds from large purple flowers that grow from tall bamboo-like stems with long pointed leaves, actually a relative of ginger. They are harvested in June or July at the time of heavy rains.
The dark brown seeds add a hot, spicy, peppery flavour plus hints of lavender, chocolate, citrus and elderflower to Bombay Sapphire. They highlight and accentuate the citrus in Bombay Sapphire and lengthen the finish.